June 24, 2011

House should at least have provided some dumb fun, given its basic premise of a haunted house and the horror-novel writer who comes to live in it. You’d think there’d be some rich ideas there—the writer whose fantasies come true, whose characters becomes flesh, whose calm approach to fear gets jumbled.

Naaah. Producer Sean Cunningham and director Steve Miner, two of the boys instrumental in bringing the Friday the 13th series to the screen, prove themselves utterly vapid when it comes to conjuring the dark dreams that inform the best horror films.

They’ve got a somewhat ambitious idea. The writer (William Katt) is a Vietnam vet who’s trying to work through an extended writer’s block when it comes to recounting his war duty. He’s also distraught about the disappearance of his young son, and the recent breakup of his marriage.

Then his aunt hangs herself in her old house, and he decides to move in. Naturally, he’s broken a cardinal rule of horror films, to wit: when a relative hangs herself in the upstairs bedroom, always sell the place immediately.

Instead, he moves in and starts hearing creepy sounds at midnight, and then a big ugly thing comes out of a closet and scratches him. Then his neighbor from across the street comes over, also big but not as ugly (George Wendt, of “Cheers”), carrying a six-pack and offering help.

Katt has a lot of warnings, but he remains in the house. It’s got something to do with solving his Vietnam problem, and also with finding his son. This doesn’t make much sense at first, but it will be explained at the end of the film, at which time it still doesn’t make much sense.

The beasts in the house are an inadequate lot. Except, perhaps, for the one that impersonates Katt’s wife (Kay Lenz), then mutates into a gray squishy thing with red fingernails. When Katt kills this monster, and is distributing the chopped-up pieces in Glad garbage bags, the soundtrack plays “You’re No Good,” an inexplicable touch.

But when Miner resorts to revivifying a mounted marlin, which flaps menacingly on the wall (if such a sight can be said to be menacing), and a bunch of farm tools come to life in Katt’s garage, you know the director is in trouble. This stuff isn’t scary, it’s dorky.

The only genuinely strange business involves Katt’s final descent into the Vietnam mystery, when he travels through the medicine cabinet into a black hole that leads him to a Southeast Asia swamp, and to the location of his lost son. But this big emotional payoff doesn’t come through, because the rest of the film is so stupid.

First published in the Herald, March 5, 1986

It has fans; of course it does, it had a long life on cable-TV and VHS. And it’s better than any Friday the 13th movie, and it has a few laughs, and it has Kay Lenz. But the mounted marlin on the wall lost me, and I never went back.

Death Wish 4

January 27, 2011

Death Wish 4 provides Charles Bronson with employment in his customary line of work: He loads himself down with ammunition and sets out to do justice in the world, without the intermediary of the judicial system. This time out, the target is drugs. Since, as one character puts it, “Everybody does drugs these days,” Bronson has quite a task.

As the film opens, it looks as though Bronson is preparing to ease into his golden years. He’s got a new girlfriend (Kay Lenz) and a flourishing business as an architect. Lenz has an adolescent daughter who is perky and lovable and full of life. This means that she is, of course, marked for death, since most people who get close to Bronson in these movies wind up getting wasted.

He takes revenge on the pusher who sold her some deadly drugs. Then Bronson is hired by a rich newspaper man (John P. Ryan) who seeks to destroy the two main suppliers of drugs in Los Angeles. Bronson opens up the ammo arsenal that he keeps behind his refrigerator and goes to work.

It’s formula action, although this sequel is slightly better than the last two Death Wish movies. J. Lee Thompson brings at least some professionalism to his direction, though the movie never blinds you with its speed. Bronson, who looks more than ever like a large, grizzled otter, goes through his usual paces. He begins the film with a dream about his favorite haunt, a dimly lit parking garage, and he remains all but asleep throughout the rest of the movie.

First published in the Herald, November 1987

A crap remake of Bronson’s Mechanic opens this week, so it seemed time to drag out another of that fine star’s desultory outings from the Eighties. And yes, if memory serves, this one was marginally superior to the previous sequels in the series; but J. Lee Thompson would stick with Charlie B. for two subsequent pictures, Messenger of Death and Kinjite—Forbidden Subjects, which were really grueling and ugly. And that was it for the directing career of the man who made The Guns of Navarone and Cape Fear. I don’t need to tell you that Kay Lenz was a mainstay of Seventies and Eighties TV, and played the lead in Clint Eastwood’s Breezy, a nice movie that had an incredibly maddening and unavoidable four-wall ad campaign. (I wasn’t old enough to go to the movie when it came out, but logging twelve hours of television a day, the commercials would drive you insane.) It was the kind of thing to make you never forget Kay Lenz.